Preview: VMware Workstation 6.5 beta surges ahead

Seamless windowing, easy Windows VM creation, accelerated 3-D video, and integrated ACE support headline a must-have upgrade

They say market leadership has its privileges. When you're way out in front and the competition is just a distant blip in your rearview horizon, you get to take a breather. Coast a bit. Maybe focus on the big picture for a while. Yes, it's good to be the leader. All of which begs the question: What the hell is wrong with VMware?

These guys are so far out in front that the competition has to dial 011 just to get them on the phone. This is especially true in the traditional desktop virtualization space. VMware has almost zero competition on the dominant platform, meaning Windows. Yet it continues to innovate -- and at an alarming pace, no less.

Case in point: VMware Workstation 6.5. Though only just entering beta, Workstation 6.5 is already causing a stir among the virtualization faithful. That's because the feature set reads like a veritable wish list to Virtual Santa from all the good girls and boys down in the in-house development and help desk departments.

For example, there's the new hardware-accelerated graphics support. You can now run Direct3D applications (including some games) from within a VM, eliminating a major hurdle to achieving near-local system fidelity. Workstation 6.5 also provides a mechanism for integrating applications running within the host OS. Dubbed "Unity," it allows you to, for example, run a copy of Internet Explorer 6 inside a VM and have its client window displayed seamlessly on the host OS desktop.

From Fusion with love

Unity is a carryover from the VMware Fusion product on Mac OS X. Another carryover is the new Easy Install feature. Designed to simplify the VM creation process, Easy Install parses the disk structure of an installation CD or ISO image, then applies a preconfigured installation script if it recognizes the guest OS media.

In the case of Windows XP, Easy Install prompts you for the product key, computer name, and administrator password, then proceeds to complete the entire OS installation automatically, no user interaction required. For support professionals or developers who frequently build and tear down lots of test VMs, Easy Install could be a real time-saver. The only downside is that it's a Windows-only feature -- no Easy Install for Linux, Unix, and other non-Microsoft platforms.

Another time-saver -- and a surefire VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) crowd-pleaser -- is the integrated Assured Computing Environment (ACE) authoring features. Now, when you create a new VM, you are given the option of enabling additional ACE configuration options such as VM image encryption and access control. Having all of these features available alongside the normal VM parameters (they appear as an additional tab in the VM's configuration page) makes leveraging ACE technologies a snap and should help new ACE users to find critical options more quickly. There's even a handy Pocket ACE calculator for projecting and configuring an appropriate portable storage model for a new VM.

Other major features included shared Smart Card support (between host and guest OS); better, more granular control over VM snapshots; and more robust networking support for mobile users (including link-state propagation for roaming wireless hosts).

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